Howdy, Stranger

018Last month Melissa wrote a fantastic two-part post called Stranger Danger about a series of uncomfortable encounters she had recently. If you haven’t read it yet, you can do so here and here, and you should. I started to write a comment on part 2, but it quickly became so long I had to paste it into a .doc to edit it. So, instead, I turned it into a post.

 

The man who came to be known as “Creepy Kenny” entered my life in the way one would expect: hovering over me as I slept in an armchair in the library. “Excuse me, Miss,” he repeated until I pulled myself upright. “Sorry if I woke you up. I want to ask you a favor.” He was probably in his late thirties and had what appeared to be unintentional dreadlocks and an unapologetic gap where an important tooth should have been. The safest response seemed to be “sure,” so I let him tell me about the line of menswear he was starting and gave him my opinions on a few sweatshirts he pointed to in a catalog. He asked if I was athletic. “You got a nice, flat stomach.” I thanked him for this but said I was not as active as I should be. Kenny commiserated and expressed an intention to improve his own diet. The night before, he’d lost a tooth to an unusually resilient Bagel Bite.

Kenny wanted me to be a consultant for his menswear line, should it ever come to fruition, and when I offered my email address to get him to leave me alone and he asked for my phone number instead, I felt compelled to give it to him. The next morning he left a voicemail inviting me to breakfast. When I didn’t respond, he spent the summer suggesting alternative outings. On a particularly poetic day, he sang a song for me whose lyrics were, as far as I could tell, the repetition of my name and “I wanna be in your bed tonight.” In August, I finally called Kenny, on one of the four numbers he had called me from, and reminded him that I had given him my number to be used for professional purposes only. He apologized, and as he was promising not to bother me again, I hung up. I have no idea if he kept his promise because shortly thereafter I canceled my phone service and went on an unrelated fourth-month-long study abroad trip.

When I explained all of this to a male friend, he was horrified. Not by the hovering, or the voicemails, or the burner phones, or the Bagel Bite, but by the fact that I had given a stranger my phone number. And frankly, I was horrified too, but I held out as long as I could, demanding to know what he would have done in a similar situation, to which he responded, “I would have said, ‘I’m sleeping,’ and not talked to him.” It seemed so simple, and yet even as I tried to imagine myself having this perfectly reasonable reaction, the image wouldn’t come. “You don’t understand,” I said. “What if he’d been crazy? Wouldn’t it be better to just be nice to him and not piss him off?”

“But he was crazy, and you let him scare you for months.” And then, “You need to learn to stand up for yourself. You can’t let people push you around.”

 

This was my senior year of college. I was 22 years old and just emerging from a period of fairly intense depression. About a year before, I had started to notice the way that my partner talked about and treated my body as though he was entitled to it. Then I had started to notice how other people, strangers, did the same thing. Then, by coincidence, I had stumbled upon Plath and Steinem, and for a while I had felt like danger was at every turn, and that I was weak, and that my body would inevitably betray me by virtue of its vulnerability. I stopped going out alone. I’m a private person who loves the outdoors, so going out into nature by myself has always been a way for me to recharge, and the loss of that outlet took its toll.

I had then told my partner I needed to take a break, holed myself up for a month, and wrote vile rants about how I couldn’t go out by myself anymore–and also couldn’t stand to be around him–because of sexual assault, and standards of beauty, and the couple I’d seen outside The Gap wearing matching knitted hats in pink and blue. I read The Bell Jar. I became obsessed with Gwen Stefani. I came to the following conclusions: 1.) That I was absolutely sane; 2.) That I was absolutely nuts; and 3.) That I was spending too much time with assholes.

When I emerged from my cocoon of rage and pop music, I was aware, for the first time, of the subtle and overt ways that others had been dictating my role as a female: These are the duties of a girlfriend; This is how to state an opinion without being too assertive; This is how to say “No” without being unpleasant; This is how to make yourself appear smaller. In other words, I had started to see double standards, and unfairness, and nonsense in the way many people behaved, and because I could see these things, they became less terrifying. I ended my relationship, I took a new job, I signed the papers to study overseas, and I started hiking again. I recognized the reality of disempowerment, and I felt empowered.

And then Creepy Kenny came along.

My friend was not wrong: I should not have given Creepy Kenny my phone number. He was also not wrong in his assessment that I needed to learn to stand up for myself, so I took the opportunity and unleashed a hellstorm of indignation: I asked him if he had a lot of frightening men try to con him into going on a date, if he had ever been grabbed by a stranger at a bar, if he thought there was a good chance he’d be raped someday, if he had been told in high school assemblies that there was a good chance he’d be raped someday, if he still felt comfortable taking walks alone, and if he knew how lucky he was to be able to go into the woods with no one there to talk at him, or look at him, or have any expectations of him, and to be able to just sit, and relax, and think—not about who else might be there, or whether it was getting dark, or whether he should keep his phone out and pretend to be talking to someone, just in case, even though all he wanted was to feel alone.

He said it was the dumbest, most paranoid speech he’d ever heard. In part, I think he was trying to be helpful, trying to keep me from letting fear of the Bagel Biter rule my day-to-day. And I also think that there was plenty that my argument was not taking into account: individual personalities, for example, and the fact that sexual abuse and assault is a reality for many men, and one that is shrouded in even more shame and silence than it is for women. But it was the fear I wanted him to understand, and I do not think it was a dumb or paranoid fear. I think it was a fear that I was taught to have, and one that many women are taught to have. When I told him this, he said that he was sure that the other women he knew did not feel as I did, and that if they did, they were crazy too.

 

One day on campus, I was surrounded by a group of men while I was reading my art history book. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I was sitting at a table in front of the library. They circled me, and one of them kept saying, “I’m gonna hurt you, girl. I’m gonna hurt you, girl.” Eventually, they left, laughing.

When a friend of mine started dating someone new, her new boyfriend’s friends got a hold of his phone and used it to call her. One of them told her that he would rape her if she turned out to be a bitch. Later, the boyfriend assured her that it was only a joke.

A man was urinating off of a balcony. He shouted down an invitation as I passed below on the sidewalk. When I kept walking, he said, “Fine, sllllllut.”

When I was fourteen, a friend of mine was picked off the street. She went to the police. They did not believe her and did not follow up. After she told me this, I did not see her again.

I was told, as a child, that when I became a woman I should never wear my hair in a ponytail downtown because it would make me too easy to grab.

I’ve been listening since before I knew what I was hearing.

I went to my first house party when I was sixteen. It was a girl’s birthday party. A friend of a friend of a friend. Her parents were there, playing poker with their friends in the living room while the daughters’ friends drank Everclear punch and Natty, and jumped in the pool, and made margaritas in the kitchen, and stumbled up and down the stairs to the bathrooms and bedrooms. One of the parents’ friends stared down my shirt while I was collecting myself on the couch. He was speaking to me, but I didn’t know what he was saying. Luckily, I was not alone, and my best friend saw the man talking to me and pulled me off the couch. Later that night, my best friend stood over me while I was sleeping on his couch and tried to pull my clothes off in the dark. He turned the light on while I was fixing my shirt. The elastic in the neckline was ruined. The next day, he did not remember. A few days later he told me he had heard that the birthday girl had been raped, and he was glad we’d gone together and that nothing had happened to me.

In India, three years ago, a man pressed his hand between my buttocks on the train platform. A man wiggled his fingers under my buttocks in the theater. A man reached out and squeezed my left breast at the temple of Brahma.

A man I trusted did not stop when I said, “Stop.”

Because nothing happened, I overreacted when I was afraid of the man screaming from the car, circling the block. Although nothing happened, I was underprepared when I forgot the pepper spray on my afternoon walk.

 

I have done many stupid things in my attempts to grow up. I have chosen some terrible friends, stayed in unhealthy relationships, had far too much to drink. I have also had things done to me when I was trying to be smart—reading a book or taking a power nap before finals. But regardless of which story I decide to tell, I’m always told what I should have done differently.

I don’t mean for this to be a diatribe against men—my partner is a wonderful man, my father taught me to be alone in the woods—nor do any of these anecdotes stand as my definition of male or female behavior. I know plenty of women who would have socked Creepy Kenny in his warzone of a mouth, and many men who would never criticize a friend who was being harassed. It’s just that when I read Melissa’s posts, I remembered my friend telling me that he couldn’t imagine that other women felt the way I did. And when I saw the comments of the readers on Bark and on Facebook, I wished he could see them too.

Last year, there were protests in India. “Blaming the victim” and “Slut shaming” made and stayed in national headlines, as did Steubenville and “Blurred Lines.” The fear and anger are being talked about, and the conversation is crucial. But what I’d most like to hear, and what is rarely said, and what is also quite possibly the most progressive, and humane, and helpful thing to say, is this: “I don’t know, but I can listen, and I can try to understand.”

8 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    This is so clear and thoughtful and well illustrated….

  • Melissa says:

    There are so many great lines here, and your control is excellent.

    I think I’ve mentioned in another post how two of my oldest male friends reacted when I told them how much I hated being home alone at night, and how they were completely surprised/had trouble reconciling that information with what they know of me. Of course that’s a different thing than what you’re describing, and what Asa also described in a previous comment– being told that we’re paranoid or being called crazy, the default accusation for a woman saying or feeling anything that some men don’t understand or agree with. But it was (and still is) surprising to me that some of the most wonderful, smart, empathetic, progressive men I know had trouble understanding why I’d feel that way. A couple of my favorite responses to my posts were from men like that, who told me that they didn’t fully understand the degree to which we feel this fear or have these experiences nearly all the time, that some of what I’d described was eye-opening to them. Which was, in turn, a surprise to me– I was surprised that anything I’d described would be all that surprising.

    What your post makes me think about is how to strike a balance between conversation and silence on these experiences. Because if some of the most wonderful men we know are surprised by what we’re describing, does that mean that we’re not articulating our experiences to them? And if so, why? Is it because we don’t want all men to feel responsible for the actions of the horrible ones? Is it as simple as not wanting our friends or lovers to worry about us? Is it because we’re afraid of being called paranoid and crazy? Is it because these experiences happen so often that describing them all would be pointless? Is it because we’ve decided on a hierarchy in which sexual assault is the worst thing, and anything “less than” that doesn’t bear repeating? I don’t know.

    I do wonder how hearing these stories makes those wonderful men feel, what they think. Do they feel grouped in with the awful ones? Not in terms of your post, which walks that line perfectly, but in terms of the larger conversation. Does this make them paranoid about how they interact with female strangers in public places? I do think it’s interesting that we’re now four posts in on this subject, between Melina, you, and myself, and I think only one man has commented. Now of course many people have read without choosing to comment, and there’s no need to comment in order to thoughtfully consider any post. But that absence has made me wonder what reactions these posts (collectively) are eliciting from male readers. Does it make them uncomfortable, sad, surprised, angry? Does it make them feel attacked? Do they hesitate to comment because they feel they can’t fully empathize, or because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing and being attacked by female commenters? Again, obviously I don’t know the answers, but I am curious.

    Lastly: I wasn’t kidding about those last few paragraphs bringing me to tears.

    • Karen Maner says:

      Melissa,

      There’s so much I want to respond to, and I don’t know where to start. Thank you for your thoughtful, insightful response. I feel like a slacker commenter now.

      Your second paragraph really struck a chord with me. I think that the conversation that happens around this topic falls into a pretty common pattern of minimizing the woman’s experience. “Oh, but it was someone you knew? Well then.” Or, “Oh, but it was just touching?” But while this results in an oppressive and gendered form of cultural conditioning, I try to keep in mind that the intention behind this response isn’t always malicious, or even gendered. (And before I go any further, I just want to clarify that I’m not saying that you’re suggesting it’s a malicious or gendered response either, this is just something I’ve thought about in trying to come to my own conclusions about how to best talk about this subject.)

      A psychologist friend once said that he believed that men in particular are conditioned to distract themselves from an emotional crisis by trying to focus on problem-solving. In other words, men focus on what they can control—even if it seems trivial—rather than acknowledge what they can’t control. But I think that this is really a manifestation of a fairly common human impulse to make grief or trauma seem less, well, terrible. Several people have told me recently that when a close friend or relative of theirs passed away, they were infuriated by the number of people, men and women, who asked them, “How long did you know her/him?” or, “Were you close?” because they suspected that the person asking them was looking for a reason to feel less bad about the situation.

      In other words, I think that part of our society’s obsession with blaming the victim stems from a basic desire to preserve the self’s sense of efficacy. But that doesn’t make it any less selfish, and it doesn’t make the consequences justifiable or forgiveable.

      I say all of this because I do think that conversation is key, and there are a lot of defense mechanisms and misunderstandings that need to be done away with for real conversation to happen. I know many women who are afraid of telling their stories for fear of being deemed crazy, or paranoid, or damaged, or “slutty.” And I also know many men who’ve been conditioned never to phrase anything as a question unless they want to appear weak, and I know many other men who do want to understand but are afraid that someone will interpret their questions or ignorance as animosity.

      In general, I do think that storytelling is the way to change things. Getting more and more people talking about their experiences increases the likelihood of those stories being heard. And the effect is cumulative. One person tells her story, and then another person feels less alone and more confident in telling her story, and so on. And as the discussion goes on, maybe those silent observers will have the time needed to get comfortable and figure out what they want to say or ask, and how they want to say or ask it.

  • Rosie says:

    I love all of these Stranger posts. You and Melissa have articulated things so well.

    I rarely ever date. A few years ago, I met a man from a dating site. He was VERY offended when I refused to get into his car. He could not let it go. He took it extremely personally, and we stopped emailing each other after that.

    On the one hand, I understand that men don’t want to be lumped into the Potential Rapist/Murderer category. On the other hand, I see it as a red flag when they get super angry about it. At the very least, they are too obtuse and/or insensitive to see things from a woman’s POV and respect our boundaries. At the very worst…well, the less I think about that, the better.

    • Karen Maner says:

      Hi Rosie,

      Thank you for sharing this. I had almost the opposite thing happen when I went on a first date with a guy and he told me in the car on the way to the restaurant, “I’m really surprised you got in the car. You’re a very trusting person. I mean, you don’t know me at all. I could be a murderer.”

      Maybe the lesson here is that there really is no good way to do a first date because first dates are, by definition, terrible.

      Seriously though, that is awful. Not a very sensitive person there, at all, and I’m glad you didn’t go out with him again.

      It’s complicated, isn’t it. I do sympathize with the wonderful men out there who regularly see women crossing the street to avoid them, etc. While I’m not imposing, I am tall, and I do have a deep voice, and I’ve terrified children with both of these qualities. It’s a low, low feeling. But on the other hand, as you say, the sympathy/empathy has to go both ways.

  • Brendan says:

    This is a really good. Its so easy as a guy not to see the continual harassment women are forced to deal with. Only once, when I lived in NYC, and a very large, homeless man aggressively hit on me and then followed me off a bus did I see what it can be like to be alone and vulnerable at night. Not a good feeling. Thanks for this great post.

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